Understanding elephant needs

Photo: Field research in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka


In 2022, Dr Rob Atkinson and Dr Keith Lindsay published a literature review and position paper on the needs of elephants. Supported by over 90 references and endorsed by 25 leading specialists, including those in elephant ecology, welfare, elephant care, and neurobiology, the 40-page report outlines the benefits of expansive, diverse habitats for the welfare of elephants in captivity.

The authors discuss the needs of these emotionally complex and physically vigorous animals, and summarise evidence of the negative physical and psychological impact of preventing highly motivated natural behaviours. The benefits of the availability of quality space are examined, including the parameters within which a repertoire of natural behaviours can be expressed. Such behaviours include freedom and variety of movement, natural foraging, and a high degree of control over their social interactions.

Drawing on evidence on elephants in zoos, wild, semi-wild and extensive conditions, they conclude that in order to breed, flourish and carry out the complex social interactions of their species elephants need areas at least equivalent to wild ranges of 100km2 (10,000ha) and upwards. However, for animals that must remain in captivity, they present evidence to support a proposal that 100ha or more of diverse, natural habitat in a warm climate would offer individual elephants the opportunity to live fulfilling lives.

The full report is available on request. 

The findings of the report have informed our guiding principles on elephant management and were endorsed by the following experts:  

Dr. Lucy Bates

Visiting Researcher, University of Sussex. Lecturer, University of Portsmouth. Director and Board Member, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (South Africa). Research into elephant cognition, culture, and social behaviour. 20+ publications.

Professor Richard W. Byrne FRSE

Emeritus Professor, St Andrew’s University. Research into elephants’ memory and cognition, evolution of intelligence. Editor/author, 5 books. 290+ publications. British Psychology Society Lifetime Achievement Award. Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

David Casselman, Esq.

Trial lawyer with long history of successful, high-profile litigation. Adjunct professor, two US Schools of Law. Litigation includes animal protection, including elephants. Founder, one-million-acres Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. CEO, Ecoflix films.

Dr. Ros Clubb

Co-author: A review of the welfare of zoo elephants in Europe. Published on welfare of captive elephants, other species, including in Nature, Science. Former member, Zoos Expert Committee. Member, UK Elephant Welfare Group.

Dr. Marion Garaï

Studies on captive and wild elephants for 35+ years. 40+ publications. Chair/Trustee of numerous elephant welfare and conservation organizations including Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (SA), Elephant Reintegration Trust. Co-author: The Asian Elephant in Captivity. AfESG*.

David Hancocks

Former director Woodland Park Zoo, Melbourne Zoo. Architect Master Plan PAWS 2000 Sanctuary, California. Author: A Different Nature. Co-editor: An Elephant in the room: the science and well-being of elephants in captivity.

Professor Bob Jacobs

Professor of Neuroscience, Colorado College. Research on neuromorphology of different species including elephants. Pioneered work on the possible neural consequences of impoverished, captive environments on large-brained animals, including elephants. 60+ publications.

Lisa F. Kane, Esq.

US attorney who successfully lobbied for the transfer of two solitary elephants from zoos to sanctuaries. Co-editor: An Elephant in the room: the science and well-being of elephants in captivity.

Dr. Winnie Kiiru

Leading Kenyan conservationist, 20+ years. Research on wild elephant/human interactions. Studies of captive elephants. Board, Amboseli Trust for Elephants. Founder, Conservation Kenya. Chair, Friends of Karura Forest. AfESG*.

Dr. M. Ananda Kumar

Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation. 20+ years research: habitat. human-wild elephant interactions. Initiated Elephant Information Network of stakeholders in human-elephant conflict. 20+ publications. Awards include Whitley; Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation. AsESG*.

Professor Phyllis Lee

Director of Science, Amboseli Elephant Research Project. Emeritus Professor in Psychology, University of Stirling. 40+ years research on elephants and other species, including captive welfare and human-elephant interactions. 170+ publications. Authored and edited 5 books.

Dr. Khyne U Mar

Former coordinator, Myanmar Timber Elephant Project, at the University of Sheffield. Long-term study of the captive elephants of Myanmar. Thirty scientific publications on Asian elephant welfare. AsESG*.

Professor Karen McComb

Professor of Animal Behaviour and Cognition, University of Sussex. 20+ years of studying elephant communication and cognition. Pioneering research on importance of matriarchs as repositories of social information. 80+ publications.

Dr. Lori Moreno

Executive Director, Kimmela Center for Scholarship-based Animal Advocacy. President, Whale Sanctuary Project. Neuroscientist and expert in animal behaviour, focussing on effects of captivity on high-cognition wildlife, including the well-being of captive elephants. 100+ publications.

Dr. Cynthia Moss

Founder/Director, 50-year Amboseli Elephant Research Project. 100+ publications on elephant society/ behaviour. Author: Portraits in the Wild, Elephant Memories, Echo of the Elephants, The Amboseli Elephants. Six well-received, influential documentaries on wild elephants’ lives.

Dr. Joyce Poole

Co-Founder / Scientific Director, ElephantVoices. 46+ years’ research on wild African elephants. 60+ publications. Co-creator of The Elephant Ethogram. Former Head, Kenya Wildlife Service Elephant Programme. AfESG*.

Ian Redmond OBE

Wildlife biologist & conservationist. First to study Mt Elgon underground elephants. Surveyed UK zoo and circus elephants. Co-founder, Elefriends. Director, Save the Asian Elephants. Head of Conservation, Ecoflix. Co-founder, Rebalance Earth.

Dr. Paul A. Rees

Senior Lecturer, University of Salford, (retired). Author: Elephants under human care; An introduction to zoo biology and management; Dictionary of zoo biology and animal management. Introduced UK’s first undergraduate zoo biology program.

Belinda Stewart Cox OBE

Senior Conservation Advisor, British Asian Trust with Elephant Family. Founder/Executive-director, Elephant Conservation Network. Achieved UNESCO Heritage Site status for two wildlife refuges, first in mainland SE Asia. Author: Wild Thailand. AsESG*

Professor Ronald B. Tobias

Montana State University. Author: Behemoth: the history of the elephant in America and 6 others. Producer, Discovery Channel, 15 years. Produced, written, and directed 30+ natural history films.

Surendra Varma

Senior Scientist, Asian Nature Conservation Foundation. 30 years, habitat and elephant population surveys. Population surveys and welfare assessments of captive Asian elephants. 20+ publications. AsESG*

Dr. Amirtharaj Christy Williams

Led WWF work on Asian elephants and rhinos for nearly 20 years. Co-founder, Conservation Initiative for the Asian Elephant. Author: Tipu, Sultan of the Siwaliks. 30+ scientific publications. Currently Director of Land Conservation in NEOM. AsESG*.

Photo: Field research in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
(C) Save the Elephants